In Egypt, fervor can turn into fury
Cairo is no place to be when Egypt is in turmoil and passions are running high.
I say that from the experience of having been in the city at just such a moment, on Sept. 28, 1970 – the evening of the day that Gamal Abdel Nasser, the country’s president, died of a heart attack while seeing his guests off at the airport after an Arab summit meeting.
I’d agreed to meet Joe Dynan, Associated Press Cairo bureau chief, and Mike Goldsmith, AP reporter down from Paris, at the Nile Hilton for dinner.
But the plan was abruptly scuttled when all regular radio broadcasting was suddenly replaced by the chanting of verses from the Qur’an.
Dynan called from his office.
“It means somebody big is dead,” he said.
Outside the hotel window, groups of men ran by, rending their garments. First dozens, then hundreds, then thousands – all screaming the name in a kind of chant: “Abdel Nasser! Loved of God! Abdel Nasser! Like a flower!”
The multitude, we learned, was bound for the Kubba Palace, where Nasser’s body had been taken, to grieve through the night for the loss of their leader.
Instead of dinner, we made our way to the AP office, where Dynan was preparing to file his story. Toward midnight, the bureau’s photographer, Ahmed el Tayeb, announced that he’d managed to find a cab to take him to the palace.
Tayeb was a towering Egyptian, with the physique of a professional athlete.
“Come with me if you want to,” he said. “But sit in back and keep your head down. And if the car gets stopped, cover your face. You don’t know these people.”
We passed through narrow streets, with men sitting in chairs on the sidewalk and the Qur’an blaring from speakers atop every shop door.
At the palace, we left the car and joined the great throng gathered in silence and total darkness on the palace lawn.
Then Tayeb took one photograph. Just one. And at the flash of his strobe light, all those thousands, it seemed, were on their feet screaming.
In an instant, the nearest ones caught him.
It wasn’t reasonable, but no one had promised reason. Tayeb was dragging them – a huge man, driving with his legs.
The frightened cabbie had backed and turned, and the car’s doors were open. Several police were trying to hold back the mob with their bamboo batons.
“They wanted to beat me,” Tayeb panted inside the cab.
The crowd surged past the police line. Fists hammered on the metal of the moving vehicle, and men had clambered onto the rear trunk of the cab.
“They’re saying, ‘He is not dead! He is alive!’” Tayeb interpreted.
It was in no one’s mind to argue.
I’ve been reminded of that episode in recent days when reading about the awful bloodletting on the streets of Cairo. But of course there’s no real comparison.
We faced only an angry crowd. The present crisis pits Islamist supporters of the deposed president, Mohamed Morsi, against the guns of the Egyptian military. The toll of civilian dead, believed to be greater than 1,000 as I write this, is growing every day. And the number of injured has surpassed 4,000.
There are increasing reports of Islamic protesters venting their rage on foreign journalists reporting from the conflict in Cairo’s streets.
I’m frankly grateful not to be one of the reporters obliged to be there, covering the deadly tumult.